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Harvard Square Reacts to Dramatic Renovation Proposal

By Kerry M. Flynn

When Andy Patel, owner of the news vendor located in the historic Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square, placed copies of The Crimson on his racks on Wednesday, he was shocked to read the front page. His fellow Square business owners, he read, want to tear down his establishment and replace it with an information stand with interactive glass walls.

The drafters of the plan for a major overhaul of the heart of Harvard Square have presented it to City Councillors and other Cambridge officials, but no one told Patel.

“I never knew about this plan before,” he said.

The 15-page set of artistic renderings, created by members of the Harvard Square Business Association, suggests transforming the Out of Town News kiosk into a state-of-the-art tourist center and installing a 23-foot by 5-foot LED screen and stadium seating in the Pit to model Harvard Square on Times Square.

Patel’s Muckey’s Corp. currently leases the Out of Town News kiosk under a five-year contract which is set to expire in 2013. Whether the lease can be extended an additional five years is at the discretion of the city. The ambitious construction plan, too, must be vetted by city officials including Mayor Henrietta J. Davis and City Manager Robert W. Healy, who both said last week that they supported the idea but have not secured funding for it.

Beautification projects in Harvard Square has been in various stages of completion for 15 years, but the proposal that would spell the end of Out of Town News is the most dramatic yet. Since its release by The Crimson on Wednesday, residents have expressed differing opinions over whether the improvements would bolster the Square’s charm or detract from it.

“I’d hate to see any of the old businesses to leave, but I understand if it’s not feasible for them to stay. Those things happen,” said Chris Kotelly, president of Crimson Corner, the competing newsstand across the street.

BUILDING ON HISTORY

The plan for revamping Sheldon Cohen Island, the stretch of red brick at the heart of Harvard Square, surprised many business owners in the Square.

Sheldon Cohen, the island’s namesake and founder of Out of Town News who manned the kiosk for 39 years, said that he was unaware of any designs for modernizing his former place of business but expressed excitement about the prospect.

“It’s bringing it up to the 21st century, looking at it that way. I think it could work together with historic and 21st century,” Cohen said.

Others, however, were more hesitant to endorse this vision.

“The screen is ridiculous,” said Edward P. VerPlanck, owner of Dickson Brothers hardware store, of the plan’s proposal to place a massive display screen on top of the main MBTA station entrance on the island.

Many of those opposed to the plan took issue with the proposal to put the Out of Town News name on a new structure with interactive tourism information displayed on its glass walls.

“It’s nice to take advantage of technology, but I love the charm and feel of it now. I don’t think there’s any need to put money into it,” said Laura Evans ’13.

The plan’s developers said this idea seeks to remedy a lack of information for visitors to the Square. The current tourism center, a small booth near the MBTA entrance, is rarely staffed.

Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office of Tourism, said that the number one question the information booth currently gets is, “Where is Harvard Square?”

Travelers are sometimes not able to have this question answered, since the kiosk is manned only sporadically by volunteers.

“A lot of people ask for info, so it’d be nice to have,” Steven Zedros, owner of Brattle Square Florist, said about an information center.

But among those who lamented the potential demolishing of the current Out of Town News, many made reference to the newsstand’s long history.

Charles M. Sullivan, the executive director of the Cambridge Historical Commission, said that the current building was constructed as a railway stop in 1928. The building then served as an entrance to the MBTA station until Cohen purchased it in 1984 to house the news operation he had been running since 1955.

The kiosk came under the protection of the Cambridge Historical Commission as a national historic landmark in 1979. In order to adapt the structure for reuse as a newsstand, Cohen had to receive approval from the Commission.

The planners behind the new update of Sheldon Cohen Island kept this in mind when creating new designs for the building.

“We want it to maintain the character and the transparency,” said Sullivan, who was aware of the HSBA preliminary plan. From offering a window on the world, the stand might go to literally being made of windows.

But Patel said that despite the decline in print media sales in Harvard Square as in all parts of the country, he would be sorry to see the unusual newsstand, which vends papers from around the world, disappear from the busy gateway point of the Square.

“It should be retail. People come from all over the world and would like to get news from their country,” Patel said.

ROUGH DRAFT

Alumni from the Class of 1962 visiting for their 50th reunion said the island already looks very different from what they used to see, when it was surrounded by two-way streets without safely navigable crosswalks. They said that the construction of the past 50 years has improved the area’s aesthetics and pedestrian security, but many were hesitant about further changes.

“The less electronic application the better. There’s already plenty of that,” said Henry S. Horn ’62.

In addition to the screen, the prospect of stadium seating drew negative reactions from several Square business owners, who theorized that it might prove a place for homeless residents of the Square to sleep at night.

The presence of homeless men and women in the Pit on Sheldon Cohen Island has been on the radar screen of improvements planners since at least 2006, when the Harvard Square Initiative, an older document of suggestions for beautifying the Square, mentioned “the homeless and safety concerns around the Pit at night.”

Kotelly, who owns Crimson Corner, said, “We’ve had some customers complain they felt that walking through the Pit area at night wasn’t the safest venue.”

But he thought the stadium seating was a good idea, since it would come along with other improvements like new shrubbery. “I’m in favor of cleaning up that area and putting some extra seating,” he said.

Though they disagreed on the merits of the proposals like the glass kiosk and the giant LED screen, most Square business owners and city officials said that the area seems due for some sort of facelift.

“The area is old and certainly tired. The street furniture is tired and needs to be redone,” Sullivan said.

Donez J. Cardullo, co-owner of Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, also located across the street from the island, said that if the proposed major construction becomes reality, it will inevitably dampen foot traffic for the many surrounding businesses.

But she said that the result—a radically modernized look for the central crossroads of Cambridge’s most touristed district—would be worth the inconvenience.

“We’ve lived through several construction projects, and we just hold our breath until it’s done,” she said. “We support any project that works to beautify the area.”

—Staff writer Kerry M. Flynn can be reached at kflynn@college.harvard.edu.

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